How can open data benefit Northern Ireland?

As technology becomes more and more a part of everyday life, people become accustomed to accessing information freely and easily.

There are now newly established standards for the sharing of information, under the concept of Open Data. It is one further stage in the evolution of digital services, enabling greater levels of transparency and citizen participation, the ability to collaborate and develop new applications, and an environment in which to innovate better service delivery.

This presents unique challenges and opportunities for Northern Ireland: government, charities, business and civic society. Number one on the agenda is gaining access to the data itself.

Government is the gatekeeper of a huge amount of data of untold usefulness. This is different from what we might call “statistics”, as stats usually summarise data for a specific purpose e.g. how many road accidents were there this month? The raw data can actually be more important as its potential is much less limited.

If this data were open for use, third parties could make it easier to find out information and interpret the results. What’s more, developers are able to create solutions using this data that allow a greater degree of user engagement with public services.

So how about some examples? Publicly-held information includes data on GP practices and prescriptions. If opened up a developer could solve how to monitor practice performance in a user-friendly way to deliver better services to patients. A data scientist could easily analyse prescribing information to find if any wastage exists in the system and identify improvements (as with the Prescribing Analytics project in NHS England). Or, to use another real-world example, harnessing official road safety data to find less risky travel routes.

Authority for releasing the data rests with responsible departments individually. However, there is a co-ordinated approach present across central government in NI with the Open Data Team at DFP, engaging and supporting departments in opening up high-value datasets. The recent Open Data Strategy also maps out how ‘digital by default’ will become the new reality in Northern Ireland’s public sector.

There is further potential and challenge brought by the formation of new councils with added powers. There will no doubt be a high degree of detailed information relating to local area planning that could be made freely and easily available. But with 11 separate organisations responsible for the upkeep and publication of this data, a singular stream of open data that is reliable and accurate becomes less certain.

Of course, we should be aware that it’s not only government that holds useful data that could be made open, though it is important that it acts as a leader. Businesses (e.g. NI’s utilities companies), charities (including NICVA) and universities can all contribute in their own way. And it’s not only corporate data that matters: many of the most innovative projects have harnessed user-contributed data.

In addition to this data being made available, it’s also important that it be licenced in a way that enables it to be reused and shared openly. So while much of the above data might be available in some form or another (whether publicly-accessible online or only via Freedom of Information requests), it’s actually how the data is published that is important. Putting data online in a PDF might be reasonable for the familiar consumer of public information, but for those who seek to mine the data, develop applications and create new products, a better format is needed.

As part of our work in the Detail Data project we’ll be seeking that the data needed most is identified and made available, that it exists in the correct format and is licensed appropriately, and that the community and voluntary sector is prepared and able to benefit from the edge that this will bring.

The opinions, views or comments in this article do not necessarily reflect any views or policies of NICVA.

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